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A Brief How-To Guide for the Short Answer Questions for Highly-Selective Colleges

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You know those Common App short answer questions required by USC, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, U Chicago, and Yale?

Apparently I’ve got a lot to say about them. How do I know? 

Because, as I was editing a student's short answers this week, I realized that, as with the Activities List and “Why us” essays, I was repeating myself.

Time to create a guide, I thought.

This is that guide. 

With 11 tips. 

In a Dos and Dont’s format.

- - - 

1. DO: Think of your short answers as an advent calendar. 

 
Whose idea was this?
 

Whose idea was this?

Each one is a tiny window into your soul. So make sure when the reader opens each one that there’s something awesome inside. Like a tiny horse with miniature bells that actually jingle. Not like a crappy piece of milk chocolate (you know the kind I’m talking about).

I feel your pain.

I feel your pain.

Can you do that in like fifteen words? You can. How?

2. DO: Use all the space allotted to explain your answer.

Pro-Tip: You’re often given space for thirteen words for a short answer. So use it up!

In other words, answer "Why," even if the prompt doesn't ask you to. Why?

Because each answer is an opportunity to get to know you better and sometimes the takeaway isn’t clear or obvious from the thing itself. Example:

Question: (from USC) What's your favorite food? 
Just-okay answer: “Tacos.”

Your reader might read this and think: Um, great. You... live in California?

Better answer: "My abuela's birria tacos--recipe has been passed down for generations." 

#culture #family #goats (Because that's what birria is: goats. #themoreyouknow)

Another example of a just-okay answer:

Q: Who is your role model?
A: Louis Zamperini

Reader thinks: Great, no idea who that is. 

Don't make the reader Google your answer. She won't.

Instead, write: 

Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, who survived concentration camps and overcame severe alcoholism. 

But...


Understanding your feelings, needs, & values makes your writing more potent and engaging. learn how to identify those things in my brainstorming exercise here.


3. DON’T make the short reason you provide (or any of your answers) super obvious.

Example for USC question: 

Q: What’s your favorite website? 
A: Instagram (social media photo-sharing site)

Yup. That's... pretty much what Instagram is. Thanks for telling me zero about you.

Another bad example (a Stanford admission essay example):

Q: What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?
A: The Big Bang. It was the beginning of our universe and it would have been amazing to see that. 

Yup, that’s… what that was. (Also, fyi, pretty much everyone writes “The Big Bang” for this question.)

Better answer (by a student accepted in 2015): 

A: I want to watch George Washington go shopping. I have an obsession with presidential trivia, and the ivory-gummed general is far and away my favorite. Great leaders aren’t necessarily defined by their moments under pressure; sometimes tiny decisions are most telling--like knickers or pantaloons?

Also:

4. DO get specific.

Q: What inspires you?

Non-specific example: Documentaries. They are my favorite source of inspiration

(Side note: Don't sound like a robot.)

Better answer: Documentaries. "Forks Over Knives" made me go vegan; "Born into Brothels" inspired my Gold Award.

Also:

5. DON’T for your favorite quote, say something that you'd find on one of those "Success" posters or a Hallmark card. 

 
Mm. Deep.

Mm. Deep.

 

Cheesy examples:

  • "Life is what you make of it." (or)

  • "Dreams are X" (or) "Always follow your dreams" (or)

  • "Life is like a dream and dreams are like life are dreams dreams life life dreams."

Pretty much anything with "life" or "dreams."



6. DON’T use Top 50 adjectives on the "3-5 words to describe you" question.

Why not? Again, they don't tell us much. 

And what are the Top 50 adjectives? You can probably guess them. 
Examples: adventurous, friendly, compassionate, passionate, empathetic, passionate (yeah, I’m making a point here). If you're writing a Uchicago supplement or, Harvard supplement essay, or Yale supplement essay, think beyond the generic adjectives.

In fact, don't use adjectives at all. One of my favorite answers for this was "Mulan."

Yeah, that Mulan.

Yeah, that Mulan.

Oh, and:

7. DON’T use adjectives that repeat info already clear on your application.

Example: motivated, hardworking, determined

Cool. You and every other student with a GPA above 3.5. Particularly if you're writing a Upenn supplement or University of Michigan essay.

Which reminds me: 

8. DO make sure your adjectives are all clearly different and interesting: 

In the example above, they all basically mean the same thing. So make sure they reveal something interesting about you.  Tell me who you’d rather meet:

Someone who is ‘passionate, persistent, and extroverted?’

Or would you rather meet an ‘ardent, panglossian visionary?’

Or maybe the ‘gregarious horse-whispering philosopher queen?’

I have questions for that last girl.

Oh, and hey:



9. DON’T worry so much about pissing people off. 

I'm doing that in this guide, using sarcasm and words like "pissing." 

Let me clarify:

Students often ask me, "Is [this] okay? Is [that] okay? I don't want them to think that I'm too [blank]." 

Oh, you mean you don't want them to think that you have a personality. 

I encourage students to take (calculated) risks on these. To push boundaries. To be, I don't know, funny? Human? Compare, for example, the following answers: 

(Yale) What's something you can't live without? 

Play-it-safe answer: My family.

Me: Zzzzzz.

Better answer: The Tony Stark-made arc reactor in my chest

This is me after reading that answer.

This is me after reading that answer.

Which reminds me: 

10. Don't check your humor at the door. 

If you're funny in life, feel free to be funny in your short answers. If you're not funny, no need to start now. 

Irony is one of the best ways to demonstrate intelligence and sensitivity to nuance.

Check out these just-okay and better examples, all for Yale 2015:

JUST-OKAY ANSWERS:

The two qualities I most admire in other people are… ambition and drive
(SMH. Same thing, bro.)

I am most proud of… my passion.
(There’s that word again. Also, it’s too abstract in this context. Show, don’t tell.)

I couldn't live without… my cell phone.
(Yup, you and everyone else.)

Who or what inspires you… the sunset
(Seriously?)

What do you wish you were better at being or doing? Answering these questions.
(Heads-up: meta answers are pretty common.) 

Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? Good times and great conversation.
(Oh look I'm asleep again.)

BETTER ANSWERS (written by a student who was accepted to Yale in 2015):

The two qualities I most admire in other people are… Spock’s logic & Kirk’s passion

I am most proud of… Only cried once during The Notebook (maybe twice)

I couldn't live without… The Tony Stark-made arc reactor in my chest

Who or what inspires you? Shia LaBeouf yelling “Just Do It”

What do you wish you were better at being or doing? Dancing-especially like Drake, Hotline Bling style

Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite? A Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles keyboard songs

You totally want to meet this guy, right?

Make the reader totally want to meet you. 

A few final tips:

11. DO: Offer a variety of things you're interested in.

So if you love science and you wrote a supplemental essay about science, don't tell us about 20 journals/websites/publications you’ve read… on science.

Show not only your interests in astrophysics but also literature, philosophy, Star Trek, programming, and Godfather 1 and 2 (but not 3.)

Got a favorite short answer example? Share in the comments below!



WANT SOME HELP TAKING YOUR short answers TO THE NEXT LEVEL?

CHECK OUT SESSION five IN MY 'HOW TO apply to college' COURSE.

 
 

How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay (Part 2 of 2)

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Look: more Stanford students doing Stanford things. Like eating. And wearing sweatshirts. #sosmart

Look: more Stanford students doing Stanford things. Like eating. And wearing sweatshirts. #sosmart

Here’s one way how to improve your Stanford (or any) roommate essay if you’ve already written a draft:

1. Count how many details in your essay reveal something deep and true about you. (I count 14 good details, in the example essay in Part 1 of this post.)

But which details reveal something deep and true? And what does a “deep and true” detail sound like? You decide.

Take a look at these details:

  • I don’t snore in my sleep.

  • I spent last summer at West Point and Annapolis, where I was told I’d be admitted if I applied. I decided not to so I could spend more time with my family.

  • I went to an LA Galaxy game with my friends two weeks ago.

  • I competed in rodeos for three years.

  • I love Justin Timberlake, NCIS, The Walking Dead, Avatar, and The Voice.

  • I have always been the girl who does the most push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups, but that’s probably because I’m usually the tiniest girl and have the least weight to deal with.

Which would you keep? Which could be cut?

Ultimately it’s a matter of personal preference, but here are two tips:

  • Notice when two or three details are communicating the same thing. Example: “Running relaxes me” and “I’m on the track team” aren’t clearly different. Cut one.

  • Specificity usually wins. Example: “I have a wide collection of crystals, American coins predating the 1940’s, and ammonite fossils in my closet” is better than “I collect things.”



And two personal preferences:

  • Keep pop culture references to a minimum. One or two is okay. Five is, I think, too many. Mix it up with some old school or classic stuff. Example: Jay-Z and Al Green (or) Wreck-it Ralph and Fellini’s 8 ½.  

  • Maybe don’t use exclamation points more than three times. Unless you’re being ironic.

Now look back at your own essay. Which are the good (keeper) details and which are kind of weak? Cut the weak ones. So much about you is interesting and beautiful and different. Don’t settle for boring details in this essay. Or in any essay. Or in life.



2. Once you’ve identified your specific, unique details, decide if you want to include MORE details and LESS explanation or the opposite.

Example of MORE details and LESS explanation:

In my room, a Korean ballad streams from American-made computer speakers, while a cold December wind wafts the smells of ramen and leftover pizza. On the wall in the far back, a Korean flag hangs besides a Led Zeppelin poster.

The author’s point is pretty clear, and though he doesn’t need to explain it, he does later:

...This mélange of cultures in my East-meets-West room embodies the diversity that characterizes my international student life.”

Those details could stand on their own, though, and the “show” requires little “tell.”

Example of a FEWER details and MORE explanation:

I love playing piano. I play it when I volunteer at the hospital, in senior resident homes, and at my Church. Every time, after I play at the designated location, both the elderly and the children smile contentedly, emanating a happiness that I have never seen elsewhere—a joy that everyone should be able to experience.

Which do you prefer? Again, it’s a matter of personal preference.

For my money, though, “show” is greater than “tell” for this kind of essay.

And most personal essays.

And life.



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How to Write the Stanford Roommate Essay (Part 1 of 2)

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Why are we so happy? Because we're at STANFORD. #wearethesixpercent

Why are we so happy? Because we're at STANFORD. #wearethesixpercent

Okay, this is not the ONLY way to write your Stanford (or any) roommate essay, but it is a GOOD way and it’s based on an essay that I think is GREAT. First, read the example essay, then we’ll talk about why it’s great and how she did it.

The prompt:

Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.

The essay:

Everybody has peculiarities that most people don’t know about. For example, I have a habit of pinching ear lobes. I also pour milk into my cereal, only to drain it out after soaking the cereal for a bit. Is that strange? Well, there’s more:

I have -2.75 vision but I hate wearing glasses because I feel confined and limited in my freedom to think. So you’ll see me squint quite often, trying to overcome my astigmatism--it’s not a death glare, I promise.

I’m also extremely tactile. I like to run my fingers over laser printing because I am amazed by my fingers’ ability to detect subtle impressions. This is why I hate wearing socks on carpet: my feet lose sensitivity. So I hope you don’t mind bare feet.

I have a fetish for things that smell nice, so I like to bury myself under fresh laundry just wheeled back from laundry room 8 (the one closest to our unit). I also alternate between three different shampoos just for the smell of it. So don’t be surprised if I ask to share our toiletry items; I’m just looking for variety.

Driving calms my nerves. Sometimes, my family and I go on midnight highway cruises during which we discuss weighty issues such as the reason people in our society can so adamantly advertise items like Snuggies. So I apologize if I keep you up late at night asking you to ponder the complex mysteries of our world.

Also, in my home, we have an open door policy--literally. Every door, excluding those of an occupied bathroom and the fridge, is always open. I hope you and I will be comfortable enough with each other--and with those around us--that we feel no need to hide behind bedroom doors.

Finally, I love shelves. They organize many different items under a unified structure and I find value in this kind of integrated diversity. And I love them as a metaphor: there is a place for everything, including even the quirkiest of our traits. That’s why no one should feel left out no matter how strange or odd they might think they are.

So, what are you like?

Why I like this essay:

I learn so much about the writer. I learn (in order, by paragraph) that she: is confident enough to admit she’s a little weird, values her freedom to think, is observant and sensitive to life’s small details, is great with wordplay, is ironic and self-deprecating even while pondering life’s mysteries, is willing to be emotionally open, values making order from chaos, (AND she’s smart enough to write an essay that actually creates order out of chaos--so her form matches her content).



How she wrote this essay:

1. She began with chaos. She brainstormed a list of 21 random details about herself using this exercise.

2. Then she created order. She organized the details into paragraphs by theme. She found, in other words, a way to connect the random facts--to put them on different “shelves” (each “shelf” = one paragraph).

3. Once she understood what she was doing, she cut some of the details that were less-revealing or extraneous and replaced them with better details that were more synecdochic. What’s a synecdoche? When a small part represents the whole. Kinda’ like an essence object. Look it up.

Remember: I'm not saying this is the only way to write your roommate essay, but it’s a pretty good way.

And if you want to get into Stanford, your roommate essay--like your main Common App essay--should demonstrate these three things:

1. Are you an interesting and intelligent person?

2. Will you bring something of value to the campus?

3. Can you write?

This student showed all three of those things and she got into Stanford.

(That along with her 2300 SAT and perfect grades. Plus she was first generation. #BTW.)

If you’ve already written a draft, read Part 2 of this post for a way to improve it.

Or just read Part 2 because it's smart, funny and well-written--like your essay will be. #thankmygrandmaformyconfidence



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How Big of a Difference Can the Admissions Essays Make in Highly Selective College Admissions?

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Can an essay take you to the top?

Guest post by: Parke Muth

Your question gets asked in many forms and ways and I have answered it hundreds if not thousands of times. In your case, I am looking at the schools you have listed your question to go to and they are among the most selective in the world. I point this out because if these are your choice schools then how I will answer this question will be different than if I simply added words in general.

The Ivies, MIT, Stanford etc., on average, accept between 5%-10% of those who apply. In order to be one of the lucky few you have to have more than just a great essay. Essays don’t get looked at first in the evaluation process. Instead, the transcript and testing and your background and school and courses do. Without some compelling numbers and overall stellar performance, a great essay won’t get you that far.

On the other hand, having great numbers is just the start of getting in to these kinds of schools. Just about everyone that applies has strong numbers, and some are nearly perfect. Some really are perfect. And still some of those with perfect numbers don’t get in. Why? Numbers predict academic success but they don’t compel a reader to say yes. More often than not words and actions need to come in to play.

In some cases, the actions trump numbers. Great athletes whose numbers are ok often get in over those with much higher numbers. So too with those who have other special talents whether it be in a particular academic area or some other interest (fine arts, service or business are just a few examples).



Essays aren’t icing. You are not a cake. But they are not the determinative factor unless you already have passed through the portal of high numbers. There are a few exceptions to this but they mostly come from those who have some sort of amazing story. Those who have had to negotiate with terrorists to save their parents, those who had to step over crack addicts to get to school, those who survived a tsunami. I mention these real examples because if you hope to get in on the basis of the plot of your essay you’d better have something that only a tiny group of people in the world have been through. The stories of overcoming hardship tend to play better than doing some things that are impressive but may cost a whole lot of money and time that most others don’t have. A guy that had climbed 9 of the world’s 10 top mountains didn’t get into most of the top schools on your list even though he had pretty good numbers. 

Let’s say you are your average run of the mill really smart person. Here’s where essays can make or break you. I often say it isn’t necessarily the dramatic that gets you in; instead, it’s the well-crafted essay that demonstrates you have not just the ability to communicate beautifully through the written word but that you can do so within the context of the world you live in. By this I mean that what you often know best and can write about with unforgettable detail is what is in front of you each day. Creating that world for others is both an art and a science. It can be learned but it usually takes time.



When I worked in selective admission, I would look for essays that had ‘a local habitation and a name’ (a phrase I have stolen from Shakespeare). I wanted to hear and see and touch and smell and feel the world you are in. Details that show, and, by end, tell too. If I felt I found a rare voice I would fight like hell to get that student in. But there are not many who can do this. I say this from personal and professional experience. I write quite a lot and most of it is ok or occasionally even better than ok, but only rarely do I hit a vein that does, in a small space, what I want it to—move the reader in some way.

Essays that are poorly written can doom a person who is virtually perfect in most other ways. It usually does not work the other way around. A great essay won’t overcome gaps in the numbers, or if it does, there is usually something else going on—some sort of special category for admission.

If you search my blog under “essay” and “selective admission” admission you will find many more comments on this topic. If you search under “essay test” you will find many examples of essays that were submitted to highly selective schools. And if you search under “McEssay” you will find links to an article I wrote on admission essays for US News.

About the Author: 

Parke Muth served for twenty-eight years in the Office of Admission at the University of Virginia, has spoken far and wide on college essays, and blogs at: www.onlyconnectparke.blogspot.com.

He was originally asked to answer this question on the website Quora.com.



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